(Best of 2001)
Some movies are so inexplicably funny and touching and sad all at once that you want to cry out of sheer joy: This is what The Movies are supposed to be all about, magical, transporting confections of dreams and hopes and kindness and true love — all the really important things in life — stories that are happy to dwell in a cotton candy-fantasy perfection, in charming, carefree alternative realities in which lovers’ woes are the most pressing problems in the world, and taking a chance on romance is the meaning of life.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the last film that made me feel this way.
And now there’s Amelie.
“Times are hard for dreamers,” someone says in director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s (Alien Resurrection) almost unbearably wonderful new film. But you’d hardly know that to look at Amelie (Audrey Tautou). A waitress at the Two Windmills, a cafe in Paris, she is content in her aloneness, and — once a chance discover sets her on the path of good deeds, and naughty ones to those who deserve it — happy to be fairy godmother to those around her. She sees the world through her own prism, which turns Paris into a Disneyland unreality, the colors muted like on an old postcard, without a trace of big-city grime or ugliness — which is how most city-lovers see the object of their affection and devotion. She’s part of the crowd but something of an outsider… like in the snippet of the news story she sees on TV, of a horse that breaks loose and joins a bicycle race, running with the riders yet never one of them.
Tautou is delicate, fragile as Amelie — not in the physical sense, despite many comparisons fans and critics have made to Audrey Hepburn — but emotionally, as we see when she crosses paths with Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), an artist with his own sideways take on the world. He, like Amelie, sees what others don’t, the art in discarded photo machine snapshots, and he sees something in Amelie, too. And we begin to realize that Amelie’s way of seeing the world is more a protection from it than anything else — she’s been alone so long, it seems, that she doesn’t know how to make a connection any longer — if, indeed, she ever did, considering the initially hilarious and in retrospect disquieting experiences of her childhood that are our introduction to her. Now, Amelie must face the confines of her aloofness and dare to expand her own horizons as she had those of friends and strangers alike.
Scratch the surface, and Amelie (written by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant) is the same basic boy-meets-girl story Hollywood has been telling us for years — this may be the least French French movie I’ve ever seen. But it’s the style in which that ordinary story is presented — Jeunet’s wry, fantastical spirit tickles your intellectual funny bone; the film is breezy, witty, with a dose of snideness to save it from saccharine — that makes Amelie so very delightful. And its simple celebration of being alive, of enjoying fleeting life while we can, gives it an uncomplicated joie de vivre that’s surprisingly rare on film.
Amelie is a chick flick, sure, but it’s a chick flick for gals who hate chick flicks. Go for yourself, and then drag your mom, your favorite aunt, and your best friend back for a second viewing. They’ll thank you for it.